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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Method in His Melody

Last Saturday was the 120th anniversary of the birth of the great Russian opera singer, Fyodor Shalyapin, but he would hardly have celebrated if he had witnessed the pale evening staged in his honor by the Bolshoi Theater.

Shalyapin was famous for reforming the opera so that performers were expected not only to sing well but to act convincingly too, thus bringing their characters to life.

All the Bolshoi could manage, however, was a depressing parade of People's Artists giving self-satisfied performances on a stage decorated with a ghastly white plaster bust of Shalyapin that looked as if it had come from the makers of Lenin's many heads.

Worst of all was Lyudmila Zykina, a great folk singer in her day, who actually appeared to be mouthing to a recording. Ironically, the dead singer Shalyapin was more alive than the living ones, and the evening was only made tolerable by the recordings of his velvety bass voice broadcast between the acts.

Fear not, however. If you are an admirer of Shalyapin, further anniversary concerts are planned in the intimate White Hall of the Shalyapin Museum, where you can hear his voice on records during guided excursions.

A veritable pilgrimage of people went on his birthday to the pale yellow mansion on Novinsky Bulvar (next to the U. S. Embassy) where he lived from 1910 to 1922. It was a grand house compared with his humble birthplace in Kazan, where he first began to sing in the local church choir and get a taste for the stage by watching visiting troupes of actors.

Shalyapin went on to train with the tenor Dmitry Usatov in Tbilisi before joining the imperial Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. But he found the rigid rules of the Mariinsky irksome and transferred to Savva Mamontov's Moscow Private Opera which took him, among other places, to Nizhny Novgorod to sing at the famous fair.

The 19th century Russian artist Boris Kustodiyev has a glorious portrait of Shalyapin in a fur coat against a background of balloon-sellers and stalls at the fair.

Shalyapin's success enabled him to acquire the Moscow mansion which is full, not only of his furniture and pictures of his family and favorite dog Bulka, but of wigs and costumes for the roles he made his own -- Boris in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov", Mephistopheles in Gounod's "Faust" and Don Basilio in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville".

Shalyapin's daughter, Tatyana Fyodorovna, came to Moscow from Paris for the anniversary celebrations, but died Tuesday of lung failure at the age of 88 in her room at the Minsk Hotel. Fyodorovna had brought a collection of paintings and drawings by the singer's son, Boris Fyodorovich, which will go on show in late February.

The most magical room is undoubtedly the little White Hall, whose walls still seem to echo with Shalyapin's voice. The singer had his bedroom right next to the hall and every morning would get up and go straight to the Bechstein grand piano to warm up his voice.

Later his composer friend Sergei Rachmaninoff would come round and they would rehearse for hours together. Concerts were given for family and friends, and it was proof of Shalyapin's rare gift that he could adapt to singing chamber music when he was used to filling enormous opera houses with his sound.

This pleasant life was brought to an abrupt end when the Bolsheviks came to nationalize Shalyapin's house. Rachmaninoff had already left the new Soviet Union, never to return.

But Shalyapin was more naive and stayed on in the hope the Communists would not prove too uncivilized. He wrote a letter begging to be allowed to keep his home because, as he said, he had never "sucked the blood of any peasants".

The response was to turn the mansion into a huge communal apartment for 65 people who proceeded to wreck it.

The guide, who in Soviet days would have brushed over this shameful episode, did not mince her words. "The house was a complete ruin and it was only renovated in 1980 when Moscow hosted the Olympic Games. Thank God we did it then because we would never be able to raise the money now".

In 1920 Shalyapin did leave his homeland. He went to New York where he sang at the Metropolitan Opera for five years, but he finally settled in Paris.

He died there in 1939 and was buried at the Batignolles Cemetery. But a few years ago, the Soviet authorities gave permission for him to be reburied in Russian soil.

Next time you are at the Novodevichy Cemetery, look out for a grave with a white statue of a man in a waistcoat reclining dreamily on a sofa. It is Shalyapin in a characteristic pose.

Shalyapin Museum, located at 25 Novinsky Bulvar, is open from 11 A. M. to 6 P. M. daily, except Mondays. Tel. 252-2530. Forthcoming concerts in the White Hall: Feb. 19-- vocal evening with Vladimir Yarlsev; Feb. 21 --salon with Irina Arkhipova.